Friday, August 1, 2014

A Better Teacher!

I had read somewhere that there are no difficult subjects, just bad teachers. For some reasons I believed in this and tried to see any student failure as the inability of the teacher or the system as a whole to transfer knowledge to the student. This was a year back and I had recently joined Virginia Tech as a graduate student and teaching assistant. The past one year in both the roles has taught me a lot about teaching and learning. And I hope working in both the roles during the next academic year will add to my learning.

Learning something is not like drinking a magic potion which a student can just gulp down the throat and be equipped with the desired knowledge.  It is like a bridge which can only be crossed with joint efforts of the teacher and the student. While a teacher has to understand the needs and attitude of the student and teach them accordingly, the later has to put an equal amount of effort in learning what is being taught. Even the smartest teacher cannot teach a student who is not willing to learn and even the smartest kid cannot learn from a teacher who is unable to understand the needs of the student and accordingly modify his/her style of imparting knowledge.

As a child I was told that learning is a difficult endeavor. Not that it is painful but it requires hard work and dedication. For some reasons I feel that is true. Working as a teaching assistant, I came across many students who would just be interested in getting the right answer instead of learning the subject. Needless to say they did not learn much from the class and during the time they spent with me. These are the kind of students who graduate from universities without much idea about what they learned in four years while they were attending college. I have heard my fellow teaching assistants complaining how students in their senior year at times are unaware of what they should know by the end of their senior year. On the other hand, there would be students who would try to understand the subject matter while trying to get their homework done. And the later were the ones who actually were able to appreciate the course material.

While I was in my undergrad, I had the same attitude towards education. I just wanted to score well in tests without trying to learn the course content. I managed to do fairly well when it came to getting a good GPA, but failed to learn what I should have during those days. On the contrary, in grad school, when I started putting serious efforts in learning, I feel that I am learning a lot. Not that the quality of teaching has drastically changed but it’s the step required to be taken by me which has lead to the difference. I had good teachers in my undergrad days and I have great teachers now, but the extra step taken by me has made me a better student.

While it is important to understand the role of student effort in learning, blaming just the kids for not putting in the required efforts can be overstretch. Students these days are forced to go on the traditional educational paths which can secure jobs for them while their interest lies somewhere else. For example, I know so many students who are studying engineering because it is a secure way of getting a job after graduating. Moreover, when the capability of a person is measured in terms of the degree he or she has or the grades obtained in tests, the quality of learning is bound to deteriorate. This system of education puts in little value in a child’s interest. If a potential musician is forced to become a doctor, he will surely end up becoming a bad one.

As Sir Ken Robinson says that the present education system was modeled to cater to the need of industrial revolution. We are now way past the industrial revolution time, and hence the system of imparting knowledge needs to change. And then we will have not only better teachers but also better students.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Life As It Comes

Tell me, what is happiness?”, asked my friend, breaking the long silence which had crept in while we walked on our way back to the hostel. The tone of the question was grave and suggested that he was suffering from an inner conflict. This was surprising for me as this was supposed to be one of the happier times for him. We had gone out to celebrate his selection to one of the leading universities in America. He had been working hard for almost a year on his applications, statements of purpose (SOPs), and other requirements. And now when everything was set: he was going to one of the finest universities in the world and that too with full scholarship; I had expected him to be happy.

Anything wrong?”, I asked him. He told me that he felt nostalgic thinking of the fact that he would have to leave his friends and family to go to an unknown country. “But is it not what you had always wanted, to go abroad and study sustainable energy sources?”, I replied reminding him of the hard work he had put in to go there. He agreed that he desired to do his masters in the USA but now that he is actually going there, he was not very happy about it. And what was adding to his sadness was that he was not ready to accept that would have to be away for two years. I tried to make him feel better by calling it a nostalgia of leaving an old place.

This conversation forced me to think about happiness. What is it which makes us happy, or what makes us sad? Do we feel joyous when we get what we desire? If the answer is yes, then why was my friend sad? One may argue that in order to achieve one goal, he had to get away from his near and dear ones and this loss made him unhappy. But did not he know this throughout the application process that he would have to go away?

Human nature is such that it does not get satisfied after getting what it wants. It is said that “the more you get, the more you desire”. The desire to get more and more keeps coming in the mind as we keep on getting what we desire. Once we get something we want, we try to achieve something else which we think lacks in our lives. Thus, we go on acquiring one thing after another but happiness keeps eluding us. This probably is the reason for people being unhappy even though they have a lot to cheer about.

We cannot control certain things or events in our lives. And the list of such things which are beyond our control is endless. At times, not topping an exam might make one sad, at others, not getting through another can evoke a similar reaction. Sometimes, losing something precious leads to sadness and at others, watching our dear ones in misery is the cause of our melancholy. The reasons might vary for this particular feeling of despair but no matter how different the causes are, there is one thing common to all. All these situations cause sadness in us and we want to get away from the anguish created by them. And this where the problem arises.

We fail to understand that we cannot escape these situations. These are the challenges which life has thrown and we have to live with them. We need to accept these with open arms instead of thinking about getting rid of them. And suddenly, life will be all beautiful, full of brightness and optimism. We waste a lot of time thinking about the future and put our present at stake to build a better future. What we fail to do and what is required to be done is accepting the circumstances, living with them and embracing them as integral part of our lives.

I had seen a painting in an art gallery sometime back. The painting depicted a lady flying in the air. Her right half was reddish-green while her left half was purple-blue. The same color scheme extended to her hair and her clothes. The area around her lips was dark as if it had suffered some serious burns. It looked like one of those mythical creatures who was suffering a spell for doing something bad. But one thing which baffled me was the smile of the lady, how could someone, who looked like an evil supernatural creature, be happy? I was left wondering for sometime about the intentions of the painter who demonstrated a lady with ugly looks and dark colors with a kind and gentle smile. And then I realized that it was probably the fact that she had accepted her predicament and this is what gave her inner peace.

At times, we start giving too much importance to our emotions. In the process of being driven by emotions and feelings, we forget these arise because we get too attached to something which we possessed or wish to possess. And in this process, we arrive at situations which further deepen our misery in present and cause unhappiness. Too much value to emotions and feelings does not allow us to look at the bigger picture of life. It makes us forget that with calmness and composure, we can sail through the largest problems of life.

It is difficult to detach oneself from many events of life. But once one starts looking at those events as mere happenings without interpreting them as good or bad, everything starts looking beautiful. Probably this is why the old man from the famous Buddhist tale ‘The Fortunes and Misfortunes of a Villager’ remains calm and composed after getting the news of his son falling of the horse and getting crippled. When villagers came to him with sad faces and conveyed their sympathies, he asked them not to jump to conclusions. He suggested them to “Just wait and see what happens. Say only that my son has broken his legs. That’s all.”
Anything which looks like a loss might turn into a reward while something which seems to be a jackpot might become a prick in the throat. So, the best way to keep away from these temporary feelings of joy and sorrow, which arise out of day-to-day events, is to accept them without trying to make a meaning out of them.

I have the habit of talking to auto-rickshaw drivers whenever I am riding an auto. Once I got a chance to talk to an old and feeble looking driver. In the course of conversation, I asked him why he was still working despite being so old. He replied that he had a son who died of some unknown disease and hence, there was no option left for him other than to earn for himself and his old wife. When I tried to sympathize with him, in a very calm and composed voice he said, “This is destiny. There is no point in thinking about it. Talking and thinking about it will just add to sorrow. And why should I say what happened was bad? There might be something good hidden in it. There might not be. But who am I to judge that?” The life would indeed seem to be full of beauty and devoid of worries for such a person.

At times what we think as a curse might turn out to be a blessing and what is assumed to be a blessing might turn otherwise. In the mythological story ‘Vishwamitra’ written by R K Narayan, Vishwamitra, who is mighty king, gets jealous of the divine cow possessed by sage Vasishta. He tries his best to persuade the saint to give him the cow. But when the sage refuses, he gets into a battle which he loses badly. Now, if one looks at the course of events only till this point of time, one might think of this event as unfortunate for the king. But this lost battle inspires Vishwamitra to go for long meditation. Finally, he acquires knowledge and is known to be one of the greatest saints of all times. Something which looked like a curse turned out to be a blessing for him. Similarly, something which looks like a blessing might turn out to be a curse for someone.

The Buddhist meditation practice of Vipassana suggest that one can attain nirvana (ultimate goal of existence) by becoming a true follower of the meditation practice. And the whole practice of vipassana is concentrated about living in the present moment and not giving any importance to any feeling of pain or happiness which the body or mind felt in the past. Like the Buddhist tale about the old man, it teaches us to become silent observers of what happens with us. It tells us not to feel overwhelmed or sad with the events which occur in daily life. Rather, one should maintain equanimity in all the situations. I do not know whether one can reach the ultimate goal through this or not but one thing is sure, living in the present frees the mind from a lot of worries. The mind is, otherwise, cluttered with a lot of information which not only cause worries and sufferings for us but take our concentration away from the work we are doing.

The difficulty, however, lies in practicing this detachment from people, events or things which make our life. It is not easy to maintain one’s composure remaining a silent observer when we fail to achieve something or when we lose someone important. But one can always try to look at the facts of life as they are without trying to find any meaning out of them.

Though it is too late to say this to my friend, but I think I will call him and tell him not to attach himself too much with his folks out here and accept life as it comes.

PS: I had written this piece in August 2012 but for some reason never posted it.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Happy New Year

In February 2003, my uncle who lives in Canada visited India and brought with him posters showing the Canadian life. One of the things which fascinated me was snow. While I could hardly see the faces of people in the posters (as the faces were fully covered), I could not take off my eyes from soothing views which the snow-covered streets and snow-capped houses provided. I still remember how I developed a lurking desire in me to visit the country and experience what it is to walk in snow. But honestly speaking, I never believed I would ever be able to fly to Canada.

Today I am sitting in my uncle’s house in Ottawa, ON. When I look outside the window, I see a similar view which was there in the poster. The streets look as beautiful as they show in the movies.  I had read about snow looking like gold when the slanting sun rays fall on it. I can see that happening right now as I am writing this blog post. It is like a dream come true.

Life takes us by surprises; we get what we had never thought of. And things which we want, at times, remain out of our reach for a long time. It sometimes feels that everything which happens around us is controlled by a larger entity, and no matter how hard the mankind tries, it has to accept what is doomed to happen.

This sounds like the Oriental philosophy of fatalism, which believes that everything is destined and we cannot change the course of what is predetermined for us. While the Western thoughts are marred with more power given in the hands of humans, I believe that we cannot control a lot of things. We do not choose who are parents are going to be or who our siblings are going to be. Similarly, a lot of life events are predetermined. At times, it looks as if we are working under the influence of the social pressures and at times, it seems as if monetary constraints determine the course of our actions. But whichever pressure it is which forces us to take a certain course of action, these are the things which we do not control.

And then there are accidents about which nothing can be predicted. And in those few seconds, life changes its course. This reminds me of the movie ‘The Butterfly Effect’ in which variations in a small incident during the childhood of the protagonist lead to different outcomes when he grows up. And when we come across so many small incidents each day, the course of our lives is getting changed each day. But one thing which is sure is that we do not know what course each incident has led us to. And we do not determine which incidents happen with us through the day. Yes, we decide to go to work on a certain day but who we meet on the bus while on way to work is something which is beyond our control. And I believe this is all decided by our destiny which is laid out for us and we just follow what is destined.

For some this thought might seem like constraining and even suffocating. I see this something which liberates me. Something which gives me hopes that each day would be full of pleasant surprises and bring more happiness than ever. And do these surprises make life more interesting?

Wishing all a year full of pleasant surprises!